Why Don’t More Legislators Use Performance-Informed Information?

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March 1, 2018
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

Decades ago, when we first became familiar with the phrase “managing for results,” the whole idea of using measurement to help guide government budgeting and management sounded like a panacea to cure all that ailed government.

As time has passed and more and more states, counties and cities have gotten on their performance horses – we’ve been dismayed. The problem has not been a shortage of data, but rather a growing awareness that the bridge between performance-based information and the actual functioning of government is rickety. The legislative branches of many state and local governments simply haven’t bought in, particularly when it comes to making budgeting decisions. That leaves the performance world an exemplar of the clichéd tree falling in a forest that no one hears.

“There’s a very small subset of elected officials and legislators who care about performance,” Ken Miller, founder of the Change and Innovation Agency told us. “My personal experience is that less than ten percent of legislators are intently focused on it.”

Donald Moynihan, director of the La Follette School of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, succinctly summed up the issue: “Legislators like the idea of performance budgeting… …They like to know that agencies are making use of the data. They like to be able to tell the public they are making government more goal-driven. But legislators don’t like to use performance data for a lot of different reasons.”

One of the challenges is the simple lack of capacity to utilize performance information – particularly in entities with part-time legislatures. As Moynihan said, “They are very busy people and performance data does not make decision making easier. It’s just one more factor that they have to add with all the other variables, like political values, constituent beliefs, lobbyist’s recommendations and so on.”

An old friend, Connecticut legislator Diana Urban is a true believer in using performance information. However, she also sees the difficulties in actually finding the time to use the tools available. Back on February 9, she told us that “I have fifty bills on my desk right now that have to be resolved by March15 with public hearings and chairs of committees deciding which will be heard. Legislators don’t have the time to look at all the data.”

Second, even when city councilmembers or state legislators are inclined to devote themselves to the use of performance information, they are confronted with a dilemma. What happens when powerful constituencies believe in one policy or process path and that route is proven to be dysfunctional by trustworthy data? Are legislators inclined to make the call that data leads to, or follow their voters and donors’ leads?  There is no one-size fits all answer, but based on dozens of conversations over the years, it’s pretty clear that many are inclined to hear the voices of voters and donors far more clearly than they do those of their agencies’ performance gurus.

“The political reasons swamp everything,” says Harry Hatry, director of the Public Management Program at the Urban Institute where he established himself as one of the pioneers in the field of performance-based-government. “There are constituents out there who are pushing for X, Y and Z all the time. That includes big and small companies and all kinds of pressure groups who are looking for money or some change to regulations. These are the people who fund campaigns and help elected officials get re-elected.”

Not only do legislators often take the path toward re-election, they often “garner far more media attention lambasting government for not working well, attending ribbon-cuttings and funding announcements, and celebrating the passage of new laws,” says Shelley Metzenbaum, a well-respected, self-described “Good Government Catalyst.”

Third, in many instances, heightened use of data for legislative decision-making is thwarted by its potential complexity. “When a legislator or staff doesn’t feel comfortable with data,” says Hatry. “it’s a real problem.”

Far easier to understand than pages full of data are anecdotes. Legislators – and the public as a whole – are often far more easily persuaded by the story of a real human being or a community in distress than they are by statistics. As we’ve analyzed gubernatorial State of the State addresses, it’s become clear that good stories are used to prove a point or move an agenda forward far more frequently than data-based information.

We don’t blame them. In fact, about three years ago, we wrote in a column for Governing magazine, “Simple statements of fact supplemented by statistics aren’t enough when communicating with the public. Storytelling is the key to getting a message across not only to the public, but also to managers, legislators and public-sector employees.”

Truth is, though, these are two parts of a whole formula for successful government. In a conversation with Don Kettl, the highly esteemed professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, he made the argument that people often present story-telling and data-based analysis as opposites, but that legislators might be far more easily persuaded if the two are combined. “We often present these things as polar opposites,” he says, “like a good analyst using complicated data, or people using stories that are too simple. But it might work better if we get good stories that represent the best of the facts as we understand them. We needn’t look at these things as polar opposites.”

This notion is buttressed by the fact that performance information generally has a greater impact in cities than in states. That’s because the success or failure of a program in a city is often very visible to the citizenry, and in-your-face evidence can be an even more powerful persuasive tool than an anecdote; particularly when combined with well-grounded data-based information that serves as a cross-check to assumptions based on personal observations. At the state level, on the other hand, many of the services like road conditions, recidivism in prisons, or the efficiency of a Medicaid program are delivered out of sight of the average individual or legislator.

It’s critical to understand that demonstrations of legislative resistance to performance-informed decision making are in no way an indictment of the legislators’ good will and drive to serve their citizens. “Legislators are not stupid,” says Kettl. “They’re trying to do their best and they have lots of incentives for making decisions the way they do.” Still, data provide objectivity in assessing the successes and failures of policies and programs. The more that legislators can incorporate data into decision making and weave it into their political narrative, the better government will be able to serve its citizens.

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